Obama’s double game on Turkey

Obama’s double game on Turkey

It may be interesting for many to observe that there is no improvement in Turkey mentioned on the 2013 Human Rights Report from the U.S. Department of State.

On the contrary, from freedom of the press to the freedom of non-violent assembly, from arbitrary arrests and long detention periods to police brutality, there are areas where the rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated over the last year, according to the critical report, released Feb. 27.

As one can imagine, on top of the usual violations in the country’s pre-dominantly Kurdish regions, this year, the Gezi protests and the government’s use of police force to suppress them received special emphasis.

In addition to that, in this year’s report there is a new chapter. A new concept on “human rights violations” in Turkey has been added. According to the U.S. Department of State, corruption has reached a level of a “violation of human rights.”

The title of Section 4 of the report on Turkey is “Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government.” The section begins with the sentence, “While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.”

The Dec. 17, 2013 graft probe and developments afterward are highlighted with a particular mention of “family and/or business ties to the AKP’s top echelons,” pointing at the acclaimed place of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in the whole affair. The corruption allegations are also mentioned in the section “Denial of Fair Public Trial,” quoting reactions from the European Union, of which Turkey aspires to be a member, and “obstruction” of independent judicial proceedings.

At the release of the report, Hürriyet’s correspondent in Washington D.C., Tolga Tanış, asked the following questions to state department officials: “The report clearly emphasizes that the law enforcement and judiciary are subject to executive influence in Turkey. So why is this not mentioned publicly? What is the influence of these reports on the administration’s policies toward other countries?”

The question is right. Does the annual U.S. Human Rights Report have any meaning for U.S. foreign policy, other than being used as leverage to take more for U.S. national interests from the countries in question?

Eight days after the report was released, a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan took place. That was the first phone call since Aug. 7, 2013, a long period of time for a leader who was named among Obama’s “five friendliest leaders” in the world a year ago.

The reason why Obama did not want to talk to Erdoğan as frequently as before was not the police brutality during the Gezi protests. Criticism was made at that time by the U.S. Department of State. The breeze was mainly because of Erdoğan’s stance regarding the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and Erdoğan’s blaming of Israel for the coup in Egypt. Earlier in the year, it was Obama who twisted the arm of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Erdoğan over the 2010 Mavi Marmara boat tragedy, in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos on their way to Gaza under the blockade, and it is known that Obama is not happy with not seeing any improvement since then, despite promises from both sides.

The call was on Feb. 19, a day after the U.S. company Boeing delivered the first of intelligence airplanes (project Peace Eagle) to Turkey. They talked about issues like Syria, Iraq, including the Kurdish oil and gas there, and relations with Israel and Cyprus, as the latest move for all parties involved, who are desperately in need of diplomatic success.

According to the White House read-out after the call, Obama said that “Turkey can demonstrate leadership in the world through positive engagement,” implying the usual strategic importance theme.

The same day, Obama said in Mexico that he did not “see disagreements with Russia over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as a revival of competition on ‘some Cold War chessboard.’” A comparison of Ukraine and Syria - both civil conflict-hit northern and southern neighbors of Turkey under Russian influence - within the framework of the Cold War could mean bad news for Turkey.

There have already been enough signs of a “New Cold War” with new actors since the rise and fall of the Arab Spring.

The U.S. had no difficulties during the Cold War to get almost whatever it needed in military and diplomatic terms from Turkey, without much consideration about the quality of democracy and economy for the Turkish people. Turkey suffered three military coups during the Cold War as American administrations (as well as other NATO allies) turned a blind eye to serious violations in Turkey. When the quality of democracy started to improve, U.S. military interests received a big blow from Turkey, as in the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

If Turkish-U.S. relations retreat to a new kind of Cold War setting and those human rights reports are not to encourage the improvement of democracy and economy in this “strategic” ally, that may not be worrying. But if Obama and Western allies want to turn blind eyes to use as leverage to get more military and political concessions from the Erdoğan government, that is indeed bad news for the Turkish people.